Death toll could reach 50 in Lac-Megantic train disaster, police say
Published Wednesday, July 10, 2013 6:22AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, July 10, 2013 10:21PM EDT
The number of confirmed dead in the Lac-Megantic train disaster rose to 20 Wednesday, and police said another 30 people are still missing and “likely deceased.”
One person has been positively identified, but the victim’s name was not released.
The grim update came as the CEO of the rail company responsible for the runaway train said he now believes the train engineer may have failed to apply some of the hand brakes before leaving the locomotive for the night.
The engineer has been suspended without pay and is under investigation, said Edward Burkhardt, head of the Chicago-based Rail World and chairman of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railways Inc.
Burkhardt said the engineer initially said he applied 11 hand brakes.
“We think that's not true. Initially we believed him but now we don't," said Burkhardt during his first visit to the devastated town of Lac-Megantic on Wednesday afternoon.
"It's hard to explain why someone didn't do something. We think he applied some hand brakes but the question is did he apply enough of them?”
Burkhardt said the train engineer was following standard "industry practice" when the train was left running and unmanned, but added that those standards now appear to be inadequate and rules will be changed going forward.
The train carrying crude oil from North Dakota derailed in Lac-Megantic overnight Friday, causing a massive fire and explosions.
The train caught fire while parked in Nantes, Que., about 13 kilometres from Lac-Megantic on Friday evening. Local firefighters put out the blaze, but the train later came loose and rolled downhill before derailing in Lac-Megantic around 1 a.m. on Saturday.
Burkhardt told reporters that the train was left running while the engineer spent the night sleeping in a hotel in Nantes.
"We were following industry practice. Was the industry practice adequate? I think not," Burkhardt said, adding that future engineers at his company will not be allowed to leave trains running while they are unattended.
Burkhardt suggested firefighters shut the train off as part of their efforts to put out the small fire, unknowingly releasing the air brakes and setting in motion the events that led to the horrific derailment.
"The locomotive had been tampered with it, that is definitely true. Admittedly it was the fire people who tampered with it. Now were they negligent in their tampering, I think not," Burkhardt said.
He added: "I feel absolutely awful. I am devastated by what's happened."
Unlike the air brakes, the hand brakes would have remained locked even after the train was shut off.
Burkhardt said the engineer has worked for MMA for many years and has a "completely clear safety record."
Protesters greet visitor
Burkhardt -- who spoke to media on his own without any other staff or employees -- was heckled by protesters as he toured Lac Megantic on Wednesday, having arrived in Quebec one day earlier from Chicago.
The MMA chair has been under a barrage of criticism for waiting close to five days to travel to the town. He said he understands that people are angry, and said the company will do everything it can to help.
"We're going to try to and help out in every way we can with this community through the city and the Red Cross to do our best to meet our obligation to make repairs and put people back in homes and things like that."
Province pledges financial help
Meanwhile, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois announced Wednesday that the province will provide $60 million in funding for those displaced from their homes in Lac-Megantic after the tragedy.She said $25 million of the fund will be made available immediately, with $8 million going toward emergency aid.
Each family will receive $1,000 to cover food and other essentials.
"When someone comes to ask for help, we want the cheque to head out that day," Marois told reporters. "We don't want them to be told about some program that could help in three weeks."
Marois acknowledged that $60 million will not cover all costs associated with the tragedy. However, she said more will be added over time.
"It's not much consolation, I know," Marois said. "(But) we will help Lac-Megantic rebuild a modern, pretty and attractive downtown...
"What I hope is that this reconstruction becomes a unifying project -- as much for the municipality as for its citizens."
Marois also announced that Quebec flags will fly at half-mast for one week and said she will return to the community on Thursday.
On Wednesday, Marois criticized MMA's response, which included a press release in poorly translated French.
"It's a completely deplorable attitude from the company," Marois said.